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Wheeldon’s Ballet: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

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Wheeldon’s Ballet: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland essay
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This essay will be exploring how women and their traditional stereotypes are presented in Wheeldon’s ballet, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in comparison to their male counterparts. This ballet follows the story of Lewis Carroll’s book of the same title and was first performed by The Royal Ballet on the 28th February 2011 with music by Joby Talbot and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon.

Wheeldon is Artistic Associate of The Royal Ballet where he previously trained and danced as part of the company for several years (Roh.org.uk, n.d.). Before even looking at this piece in detail, this ballet sets itself up as being wholly unlike many traditional ballets, including a tap-dancing Mad Hatter and having many fantastical and colourful staging element, which can be argued to take away from the actual dancing during the piece (Crompton, 2011).

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’s cast is largely made up of male dancer with only two members of the main cast being female, Alice and the Queen of Hearts, with all dancers playing characters of the same sex apart from the Duchess who is played by a male dancer. This essay will look at how gender is presented in fairy tales and similar stories as well as Judith Butler’s theory on gender and performativity. Butler has carried out extensive research and has a detailed theory on the distinction between gender and sex and how gender is not a fixed trait as sex is (Butler, 1999).

Whilst Alice in Wonderland is not traditionally considered a fairy tale, it does include many similar story aspects, as well as being set in a fantasy land, to many traditional fairy tales. These stories are often seen to be reinforcing typical gender stereotypes (Fisher and Silber, 2000) which could be the result of most fairy tales being written by males who are using them to express their thoughts and beliefs on what women should and should not do (Haase, 2004).

Many of these tales include anger between mothers and daughters which is often actually caused by the oppressed condition of women by their male counterparts (Fisher and Silber, 2000). This is commonly seen in many fairy tales in the way that many of the young female characters, often classed as princesses, are strongly encouraged, and in some cases even forced, to find a husband and get married.

It can be suggested that many of these authors are using these stories to express what they believe constitutes feminine and unfeminine behaviours (Haase, 2004) and reinforcing what they believe is a woman’s “proper” role in society and in a family (Fisher and Silber, 2000).

Given many of the endings to the more aggressive mother figures, such as evil stepmothers, it is no surprise that women and girls worry about overstepping the line on what is considered feminine behaviour (Fisher and Silber, 2000) when it is repeatedly shown that what is commonly classed as unfeminine behaviour will not get you anywhere in life and in some cases leads to the demise of the character.

Although in today’s society many of the more modern fairy tales are combatting this issue by showing more strong female characters and have storylines that do not necessarily result in marriage. Many fairy tales typically display the idea of female helplessness which encourages and welcomes the idea of a masculine rescue (Fisher and Silber, 2000).

As a result, what is often classed as a “happily ever after” ending, in many traditional fairy tales this seems to do more to appease the readers rather than actually resolving patriarchal dilemmas and instead is often ‘a “happy” return to male domination’ (Fisher and Silber, 2000).

Through these stories, young girls are taught and encouraged to have a sense of distrust and wariness towards their mothers and other female friends and it is seen to be necessary to relinquish these ties in order to pursue the competitive race towards male approval (Fisher and Silber, 2000).

Judith Butler is an American philosopher and gender theorist who has her own theory on gender, sex and identity. Most of Butler’s theory follows the idea that gender is ‘a constructed identity’ (Butler, 1988) and that there is a clear difference between gender and sex. Butler believes that gender does not relate to the biological makeup of an individual and is not connected to the body but instead ‘the body becomes its gender through a series of acts which are renewed, revised, and consolidated through time’ (Butler, 1988).

Butler describes gender as being a series of commonly observed behavioural traits associated with men and women, it is not caused by an individual’s anatomy or chromosomes, but rather they are culturally learned or acquired. In contrast, she described sex as denoting human males and females depending on biological features (Butler, 1988), such as chromosomes and hormones.

Thus, this also helps to explain how there is a difference between female or male and feminine or masculine, with female and male being the purely biological aspects of sexual differences whilst feminine and masculine represent the social constructs, the patterns of sexuality and behaviour imposed upon by cultural and social normalities.

Butler believes that you cannot identify as a gender as the main part of your identity but it is still a part of the traits that make up an individual’s identity and how they are viewed by others. In support of this, Butler states that ‘gender reality is performative which means, quite simply, that it is only real to the extent that it is performed’ (Butler, 1988), suggesting the belief that gender is a choice that each individual makes.

According to Butler, gender is not a fact, and therefore without the various acts that create the idea of gender, there would be no gender at all (Butler, 1988). This further supports the idea that gender is made up of theatrical traits that an individual carries out and is not related to any physiological factors.

This links into Butler’s idea of performativity, which further suggests and supports the ideology that gender is a social construct that is developed rather than being an innate trait that we are born with. This theory uses bodily gestures, movements and enactments of various kinds which constitute the illusion of bearing a gendered self.

The way that gender is presented in ballets can be as a result of many things, with one of them being that most of the authoritative figures within the ballet world, such as artistic directors and producers, are male.

This is demonstrated in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as it has been choreographed by a male meaning that, like many ballets, it is largely from a male perspective which does affect how different characters are presented and male protagonists tend to command the stage (Mulvey, 2016).

It is seen that in ballets women are presented and displayed by males for the pleasure of other males which is supported by the fact that traditionally women in entertainment are displayed for two reasons; an object for the characters and as an object for the audience (Mulvey, 2016).

A large amount of time, in ballets, women are seen as objects in the way that they are presented by the men, most clearly seen in a traditional pas de deux but also demonstrated in other variations, which only continues to highlight and conform to the traditional stereotypes that society has placed on women.

This is further confirmed by the use of focus and gaze from male characters which is frequently directed towards the female characters which furthers the sense of objectification of these female characters. It is traditionally seen that ‘women are simultaneously looked at and displayed’ and are ‘an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative’ (Mulvey, 2016).

In history, it has been seen that some female dancers, including Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan and possibly most notably Martha Graham, have broken away and rebelled against this traditional ballet conventions and have found their own techniques that pioneered contemporary dance that we know today. In particular, Graham’s piece ‘Night Journey’ tells the story of the myth of Oedipus but from the mother’s point of view instead (Martha Graham Dance Company, n.d.).

Whilst this move away from the traditional male point of view is important it is also important to note that it is not possible to simply reverse everything and result in a female’s point of view. There is a different quality that comes with a story from a female viewpoint as it is necessary for it to include a more emotional quality than is traditionally seen from the male point of view; however, there is a fine line before this becomes indulging in traditional female stereotypes.

During Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the use of the music, written by Joby Talbot, is mainly useful to aid the storytelling happening on the stage but it also has some noticeable changes depending on what characters are dancing at the time.

When it is predominately female characters dancing on the stage, such as Alice herself, there tends to be lots of intricate melodies in the music with faster beats that favour quick footwork whilst also having moments with more softness, which can be seen in Alice’s solo before she meets the Caterpillar in the first act.

In contrast to this, when there are mostly male dancers and during some of the pas de deux moments, the music is much slower and more heavily accented which in turn is favouring more towards big jumps and highlighting big lifts in duets.

The music can also be used to emphasise how unfeminine some of the female characters are by contrasting the feminine, delicate and flowy music with movement that seems to be the complete opposite of this. This is particularly noticeable in The Tart Adage by the Queen of Hearts in Act 2, a play on the Rose Adage from Sleeping Beauty, where the choreography, posture and facial expressions all combined portrays her as being villainous and unfeminine, unlike the music.

This use of facial expressions is also important when examining the character of Alice herself, it can be clearly seen that she is at her happiest and smiling the most when she is dancing with either Jack or the Knave, which continues to play into the idea previously presented in many fairy tales that a man is needed in order for a female to get their own ‘happily ever after’.

As previously indicated by the use of music throughout this ballet, many of the female dancers are given more intricate, pretty and delicate choreography whereas in comparison their male counterparts are more frequently given big, impressive jumps and lifts that allow them to show off their strength, which can be clearly seen by observing the characters of the fish and frog footmen whose movement vocabulary is largely made up of big jumps.

This, however, is challenged by the conscious choice to have the Mad Hatter’s character, who tap dances throughout the ballet, have lots of intricate footwork which often is the nature of tap dance. Although examining the Mad Hatter and Alice next to each other allows you to see the clear contrast between the style of movement that is given to male and female characters.

Alice’s movements are much softer and delicate in comparison to the Mad Hatter whose movements are much sharper and harsher, which can be seen to once again be playing into the stereotypical belief that women are much more delicate than their male counterparts.

Additionally, this is supported by the fact that Alice is portrayed as being very emotional, particularly in the first act, which although the ballet does have boundaries set by the narrative that Carroll wrote, this borders on the fine line of playing into the stereotype that women are overly emotional.

Along with the of a pas de deux being that the woman is normally the one being presented and displayed by the male dancer, it can be observed during this ballet that the female dancer is almost always in front of the male dance with the male dancers face being completely hidden at some points, such as in the duet between Alice and the Knave at the end of the first act.

This links back to Mulvey’s analysis of the use of the male gaze and how it is frequently directed towards the female characters and creates a sense of objectification of the female. However, as this ballet is more modern there are some parts that have a more contemporary feel rather than that of classical ballet, so there are some moments in several of the duets where both the male and female characters are doing the same choreography next to each other, having more of a sense of equality.

This can be seen in both Alice and Jack’s duet at the beginning of the first act as well as in Alice and the Caterpillar’s duet at the end of the first act. In addition to this, unlike most classical ballets, there are several time where it is seen that there are two male dancers dancing together in a duet, such as the Mad Hatter and the March Hare at the Mad Hatter’s tea party scene, although most of the time it is mixed-sex pairings as you would usually see in a traditional ballet.

Even the corps de ballet are almost always seen in pairings with a male and female dancer which once again continues to play into the idea of females being reliant on their male counterparts. This is further supported by the fact that Alice spends most of the first act chasing after the Knave which links back to the idea, seen in many fairy tales, that is it necessary for a woman to have a male significant other in their life.

As mentioned previously, in many fairy tales many of the older female characters are portrayed as being villainous, which is no different during this story. Starting at the beginning of the ballet in the opening scene we see the character of Alice’s mother keeping Alice and Jack apart which then continues on to be seen with the Duchess and the way she treats her baby as well as the Queen of Hearts throughout the rest of the ballet. During the ballet, it is frequently shown that female friendships seem to involve some kind of rivalry and chaos, such as the interactions displayed between the Duchess, the Cook and the Queen of Hearts, whereas in contrast throughout the ballet male friendships always seem playful and without this rivalry, such as with the Mad Hatter, the March Hare and the Door mouse. This plays into the idea that was previously mentioned that it fairy tales, females are frequently taught and encouraged to distrust each other and have a sense of wariness. Although this piece has a female protagonist that carries the story and moves along the narrative, as seen in many traditional ballets, Alice is not always seen as a strong female character. Particularly in the first act where she seems to always need help from the other male characters as she chases after the Knave. However, it is unusual to have the female character in this story trying to save the male character, as seen by Alice and the Knave at the end of the second act.

In conclusion, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland whilst mostly a classical ballet does not always conform to traditional gender stereotypes, both within fairy tales and within dance as a whole. There are many moments throughout the ballet that do play into traditional stereotypes, such as the idea that women are more delicate and emotional, however much of this is related to the nature of ballet as a whole style of dance rather than this ballet in particular. With this ballet being more modern there are elements throughout they do challenge these stereotypes such as the fact that it is Alice who ends up helping to save the Knave rather than being the other way around and playing into the idea frequently seen in fairy tales that there is female helplessness that requires a masculine rescue. This ballet helps us more to identify and understand how gender and the subsequent stereotypes are portrayed in fairy tales and similar fantasy stories.

Wheeldon’s Ballet: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland essay

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Wheeldon’s Ballet: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (2020, Sep 24). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/wheeldons-ballet-alices-adventures-in-wonderland/

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